Classical CBSO 75th anniversary concert / Vanburgh Quartet / BCMG Symphony Hall, Birmingham / Pebble Mill / Adrian Boult Hall

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The Independent Culture
A significant birthday seems like a good excuse for a premiere. Not only was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commemorating its 75th anniversary with new works by Oliver Knussen (well, nearly new), and John Adams, a few days earlier there was the first broadcast from Pebble Mill of Michael Berkeley's Magnetic Field specially commissioned to celebrate the 10th birthday of the Vanbrugh Quartet. Magnetic Field is something of a homage to Purcell in its exploration of the possibilities inherent in one note; if at times the concentration on a single note became a little too insistent, the clarity of the overall design and Berkeley's resource in the handling of the instruments made for rewarding listening.

The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group doesn't need a birthday to justify a premiere. The first concert of the new series - hard to believe it's already their ninth - preluded the first performance of Philip Cashian's Chamber Concerto with Poul Ruders's relentlessly appealing Four Dances in One Movement and Berg's own Chamber Concerto. The Berg is not played as often as it should be, and to an extent this showed in a rendition in which the brass were overly forceful and slightly less than supportive of the elegant solo performances of Lyn Fletcher and Malcolm Wilson.

Philip Cashian's Chamber Concerto fared rather better with Elgar Howarth securing fresh and acute playing from the group. Cashian's feeling for instrumental colour did much to create a strong profile for the work. A slight problem was that the relative rhythmic monotony in the piece got in the way of instrumental variety. The duration of the 15 sections of the piece were determined before the music was written and at times this element of calculation seemed to neuter the free development of an argument. When the musical fabric broke free from the main torso in the last slow section, "frozen", the result was enormously effective.

Of the two premieres promised to celebrate CBSO's 75th anniversary, only John Adams's arrived in time. Instead of a new work by Knussen, we got Flourish with Fireworks from 1988, a work whose explosive charms seemed appropriate enough. Adams's Lollapalooza, written also as a 40th birthday celebration for Simon Rattle, was given a pungent reading by the orchestra. Big and brash at the outset, it didn't deliver quite the "knock-out punch" to which its title alludes. Punchy rhythms and snapshots of what we tend to think of as the classic American sound aggregated into something that didn't seem fully rounded out - a Big Mac without the sauces.

Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music performed by the four soloists of Beethoven's Ninth and young singers hand-picked from the nation's Conservatoires followed. A happy idea and one well justified in the substance and subtlety of the sounds they produced against a superbly judged, almost Debussian reading of the score. Much has been written about Rattle's performance of Beethoven's Ninth elsewhere; suffice it to say that it is the most intelligent, committed and chorally thrilling performance we are likely to hear this decade.

JAN SMACZNY

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